MORTAR winners talk success, challenges

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Five women entrepreneurs share their successes and challenges

In celebration of Black History Month, we spoke with five of our MORTAR at Bounce “Life’s a Pitch” competition winners – who also happen to all be Black women. We learned what motivates them and if they have any advice for others trying to start their own business.

Jacqueline-Achadu-owner of Hunny-Bunnys-Confections
Jacqueline Achadu, owner of Hunny Bunny’s Confections

Jacqueline Achadu, owner of Hunny Bunny’s Confections, once tossed one of her signature push-up cake pops to a pilot who was running down an airport concourse, late for his flight. The commotion attracted curious (and hungry) travelers to her mobile pushcart at Cleveland Hopkins Airport and she quickly sold out of her baked treats.

Achadu is one of five women entrepreneurs who, along with Monique Clark of Kurvology, Markia Sims of Zoe Wheels, Denise Williams of Diva de la Crème and Tanya Green of Julia Belles’ Seasonings, are all graduates of the MORTAR at Bounce accelerator program and winners of the $3,000 prize in MORTAR’s “Life’s a Pitch” competitions. While open to all entrepreneurs, MORTAR at Bounce focuses on serving minority entrepreneurs.

“I did everything backwards,” said Achadu, who started Hunny Bunny’s in 2017 out of necessity when she couldn’t find a job with her psychology degree. “I had a logo before I had a business plan.”

Achadu knew she wanted to do something different and wasn’t interested in opening a bricks and mortar bakery. Because her treats are portable snacks, she focuses on selling them from a push cart at Cleveland Hopkins and Akron-Canton airports, as well as farmer’s markets, and community and private events. She also has an online store.

“One of my strengths comes from being an only child who’s used to figuring things out on my own,” she said.

While she’s not accustomed to asking for help, through MORTAR she’s met other entrepreneurs and tapped into the expertise of several mentors, who have helped her grow her business and make new connections. Winning the “Life’s a Pitch” competition gave her the funds to purchase a trailer so she can take her treats to even more places. Shaped like a house with a fresh coat of pink paint, the trailer is expected to be on the road by late spring/early summer.

One of Achadu’s biggest challenges has been having others recognize that Hunny Bunny’s isn’t a hobby or side hustle, but rather a full-time job.

“Sometimes you have to fight to be taken seriously,” she said, recalling a time she had a male friend call a bank on her behalf and was given more favorable terms than she was.

However, since launching Hunny Bunny’s, she hasn’t looked back – and encourages other entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams, knowing they will learn as they grow.

“If this is what you want, you have to step out on faith and just do it,” she said.

Monique-Clark-Kurvology
Monique Clark, owner of Kurvology

Monique Clark, Kurvology

Monique Clark, founder of Kurvology, also encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to “just do it.”

“You have to do what makes you happy and go for it, but understand it’s not going to be easy,” Clark said.

The idea for Kurvology came from Clark’s experience as a model, and then later as she dressed women for fashion shows.

“It’s harder to find clothes for curvier women, and I also wanted to help women embrace their curves,” she said.

Along the way, Clark has developed a line of shapewear, opened a fashion boutique, and founded a fashion weekend and beauty pageant to celebrate women and their curves. She also hosts workshops that promote self-confidence in women and girls.

Through her participation in MORTAR, Clark has taken a deeper dive into Kurvology, particularly the retail store she opened in Akron at 839 E. Market St.

“Through MORTAR, I received a lot of good information regarding how to structure my business, as well as access to a lot of resources that I wouldn’t have had otherwise because often this type of information is hidden or hard-to-find,” she said.

Winning the “Life’s a Pitch” competition gave Clark funds to expand her retail inventory, as she continues to grow that side of the business. Juggling it all can be a challenge as Clark also has a full-time job as a community health worker and she provides community psychiatric supportive treatment with the Minority Behavioral Health Center.

“My biggest strength is my resiliency. As an entrepreneur, things can go left or right so much, so you just have to redirect and try something else,” she said.

The Kurvology brand has grown primarily by word of mouth and through Clark’s involvement in the local fashion community, including fashion week in Cleveland and as a regular columnist in Haute Ohio fashion magazine. With a greater focus on her retail presence, she’s planning to host more pop-up shops and expand store hours with the help of family to keep the brand going.

Markia-Sims-Zoe-Wheels
Markia Sims, owner of Zoe Wheels.

Markia Sims, Zoe Wheels

Markia Sims’ motivation to keep Zoe Wheels moving comes from her personal experience as a single mother who once walked in the shoes of her clients. She understands that for those living in poverty, transportation barriers make it difficult for them to take care of their families.

“The need is great. Health insurance will often pay for rides to doctors’ appointments, but there are fewer resources for non-medical needs,” Sims said. “By focusing on providing transportation for necessities such as food, clothing and medicine, I can help my clients, especially single moms, make a better life for themselves and their children.”

Through MORTAR at Bounce, she received help developing a business plan, figuring out her niche and managing cash flow. She also learned how to register with Medicaid managed care plans and receive minority contracts. Thanks to the Akron Resiliency Fund, she purchased a van.

“All of the mentors and facilitators were great. There are so many resources and connections that I’ve made at Bounce that have been very helpful. The whole building is like a family,” Sims said, noting that through Bounce she was connected to the Ohio Procurement Technical Assistance Center, Small Business Development Center, Rubber City Match, Microbusiness Center, and Economic and Community Development Institute.

Winning the $3,000 Life’s a Pitch prize has helped with expenses, especially gas, but chasing funding sources continues to be one of Sims’ biggest challenges.

“My greatest strength is my ambition. I know what single moms need because I have lived it. God will not let me quit,” she said.

She also advises other aspiring entrepreneurs to find their true calling.

“A lot of entrepreneurs have the mindset that they need to make a lot money, but you have to find your passion and have a higher purpose than just a means to make money,” Sims said. “If you look in your heart, God will show you the way.”

Denise-Williams-Diva-de-la-creme
Denise Williams, owner of Diva de la Crème and Tech Diva Consulting.

Denise Williams, Diva de la Crème

After getting laid off from her job as a data scientist, Denise Williams struggled to find a good fit and in 2019 started Tech Diva Consulting, a technology consulting business. However, it’s her passion for staying healthy through a plant-based diet that led her to create her own line of plant-based ice creams and start Diva de la Crème.

“In 2020, I was trying to not gain weight during the pandemic, but I couldn’t find a plant-based ice cream that was both healthy and delicious,” said Williams. “Other products on the market just use fillers to replace dairy products so they can call them vegan.”

She started experimenting with her own recipes and a Cuisinart ice cream maker, while learning everything she could about the science of ice cream making. This love of learning and her resourcefulness are two of her strengths, but she still recognized she could benefit from the business resources available through Bounce.

“With my first business, I kind of jumped into it, but when I heard a radio commercial for MORTAR, I saw the potential and applied right away to meet the deadline,” she said. “The resources there have helped me slow down and be more strategic and conscious-minded about my growth.”

The $3,000 prize from Life’s a Pitch is being used to cover insurance and the purchase of a commercial ice cream maker. She also appreciates being part of the MORTAR alumni community and feels a deep connection to her fellow entrepreneurs.

While it’s been a challenge to help people understand why Diva de la Crème’s plant-based ice creams are different from other commercially available vegan and plant-based products, Williams knows she’s on the right track.

“As an entrepreneur, you need to believe in yourself,” she said. “Although you’re building something that is all your own, the mindset shift is that you want to have a bigger impact and create jobs for others.”

She also advises entrepreneurs to use the same business development tools for their own personal growth and development.

“Your business is an extension of yourself, so don’t forget to keep working on your personal development,” she said.

Williams is looking forward to having her products at local farmer’s markets this summer, where she can test market them and get feedback before launching in the fall.

Tanya-Green-Julia-belles-Seasonings
Tanya Green, owner of Julia Belles’ Seasonings

Tanya Green, Julia Belles’ Seasonings

As Julia Belles’ Seasonings has grown, founder Tanya Green has moved away from the farmer’s markets that were once essential to building her business. Along with online sales, Green’s line of seasonings, prepared mixes and other food products are available at various regional events and through wholesale relationships with a growing list of retailers.

Green’s greatest strength is communication, which is why she still sells products at a limited number of events where she can meet and talk to customers.

“It’s important to stay in touch with your customers. You need that engagement and dialogue to position your products and make sure you are meeting your customers’ needs. I can’t envision growing without it,” Green said. “It’s a constant path toward discovery.”

Green has added new products based on customer feedback. She’s also offering larger sizes and is moving away from plastic to more environmentally-friendly packaging to meet customer demand. Other initiatives in the works include selling prepared foods that profile her seasonings and mixes at the NoHi incubator commercial kitchen in North Hill. She is also considering subscription boxes to give customers a fun way to try products, whether as a one-time sample box or an ongoing subscription.

Winning the “Life’s a Pitch” competition gave her funds to pay someone to post content on her website and social media to drive online sales and provide customers with multiple points of contact.

Like many business owners, Green’s challenges include time management, shipping delays and supply chain issues, including the availability of certain ingredients that have forced her to revise some recipes.

“As a small business, I know that I don’t carry the same weight as a big company, so I’m at the mercy of suppliers,” she said.

Green is grateful for the resources at Bounce, which have enabled her to turn her mom’s recipes into a growing artisanal food company, and encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to do the same.

“Take advantage of Bounce and tap into as many resources as you can. You won’t regret it,” Green said. “I started another business in the 1990s when a lot of these resources didn’t exist. It’s great to see there is now so much more available to promote women business owners, especially Black women.”

For more information about Bounce’s GROW programs for minority entrepreneurs, including MORTAR, please visit bouncehub.org/GROW. Applications for the May MORTAR cohort are currently open until Feb. 28. Learn more at bouncehub.org/mortar.

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